"I'm writing to ask if you ever heard of an Italian dish which my grandmother pronounced "Poon-COT"? The word probably had a vowel at the end which she didn't pronounce, kind of like "Ree-SOT" and "Mani-COT". It consisted of chicken broth with a scrambled egg stirred in the boiling mixture, and then soda crackers were added until they were very soft. It was then sprinkled with a little Parmesan cheese. She ate it when she was sick and made it for us grandchildren when we were sick. It must have worked, she lived to be 100 years old. "
And I replied:
I wasn't expecting to find much on this, because it sounds like simple home cooking of the sort the poor practiced and that those who were writing cookbooks (aimed primarily at the middle/upper classes) wouldn't have written down. I've encountered similar difficulties in trying to track down other peasant dishes, for example simple, rustic Easter breads -- they're good, but those whose economic circumstances improved enough that they could prepare richer dishes stopped making them and didn't want to be reminded of them because they brought back memories of hardship.
However, I have found a couple of recipes for Pane Cotto, one from Campania and the other, which is a little richer, from Basilicata. Both very simple, and here they are; we'll begin with the Campanian recipe, which was a way to eat leftover stale bread that was much too precious to be thrown away or given to the livestock. To serve 4, you'll need:
- 4 thick slices crusty stale bread, at least a half pound (225 g)
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 1 quart (1 liter) water
Note: this is very, very frugal. You could jazz it up by adding one or two cloves of peeled crushed garlic to the pot, and dusting the soup with freshly grated Pecorino Romano at table. Or you could do more, stirring a beaten egg or two into the broth before ladling it over the bread.
Indeed, this is what they do in Basilicata; to prepare their Pane Cotto you'll need:
- 8 tablespoons olive oil
- A clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
- 4 eggs, well beaten
- 1/2 pound (225 g) stale crusty Italian bread, crumbled
- Ground hot pepper to taste
- A small bunch of basil, chopped
- 1 pint (500 ml) water
Heat the oil in a pot big enough to contain the water as well, and saute the garlic and hot pepper to taste for a minute or two. Add the water, bring the mixture to a boil, and cook for a couple of minutes. Vigorously stir in the eggs and the basil and cook a minute more stirring all the while. Ladle the mixture over the bread and serve at once.
As a variation, you could add some freshly grated Pecorino Romano.
And there we have it, two simple variations of a peasant dish.